I am now able to get back to posting after the better part of three weeks on the road. I was at Digital ID World in Denver, ISPCon in Santa Clara and ISP Exchange in Las Vegas with a few meetings in between.
There are three things that jumped out to me from being to speak to numerous service providers and just hang out and check in on where their businesses are at. They are as follows:
– email is an even bigger opportunity than I imagined BUT it is so misunderstood by the channel that the opportunity may not manifest itself;
– there is a huge opportunity, again even bigger than I imagined, with respect to publishing tools and managing digital photography, which bodes well for blogware (so if you are not selling it you should); and
– there is a huge need for service providers to control a start page if they want to take advantage of all the opportunities that will exist around distributing media (music, video, etc.).
I think I will write about those items over the next few days, but in reverse order. Portal first.
I will also note that generally service providers are doing well. Their businesses are growing and they are making money. There is also a growing acceptance of the value of a “small” business. By that I mean one that is not going to take over the world or do an IPO or look for venture funding, but will provide a nice (often VERY nice) living for a group of people doing what they love to do. One that can service a small community or vertical space. One that focuses on selling more things to existing customers rather than desperately trying to find more customers. One that competes on service not price. This is, based upon my recent experience, what most service providers are. Good deal.
As I get ready for Digital ID World I have been thinking about identity and what has transpired between the first Digital ID World last year and now. The short answer is very little. Or at least not as much as I had hoped.
Now a caveat. Andre and Eric have done a great job in a number of ways. The conference itself is a successful venture. No small feat these days. They are a force for good inside the world of federated identity and they have a clarity of vision that I can only describe as insightful with respect to identity as it relates to commerce. I also must note that they have made huge progress in the whole area of federated identity through the main Source ID venture.
Despite all of this, my gut says that things will evolve very differently. My thoughts on this first crystallized in a discussion I had with Eric at PC Forum in March. Eric and I were discussing top-down vs. bottom-up identity and the whys and wherefores. I need to lay out a few assumptions that underpin my thoughts. They are as follows:
– Applications will drive adoption of identity;
– There are two broad categories of applications, commerce and communications. Think of commerce as reserving a plane ticket online. Think of communications as posting a comment on a blog;
– The identity tools that have the largest install base will end up becoming the de facto standard; and
– The more lightweight the approach the faster and broader the adoption.
We all (Eric and I and everyone at the conference last year and the concierge and…..) agree on the first point. The second is one of my construction. The third and fourth all have so many examples in the history of the Internet going all the way back to SMTP vs. x.500 that I will ask that we take judicial notice of them (ironically one of the few exceptions to the third and fourth points is the world of IM where Andre obviously has a wealth of experience. Coincidence? :-)).
I believe when one looks at those four points together it becomes clear(er), or at least it does to me, that it will be communications applications that drive broad-based adoption of real identity tools. I must stress that the two tracks are far from mutually exclusive and the types of remediation services that Andre and Eric envision in the Source ID world will be absolutely necessary, BUT they will, IMHO only be of value once a lightweight identity standard has emerged from communications applications driving broad adoption.
I think this is good news for users and for the Internet more broadly. This certainly implies user-centric identity to me and all that goes along with it.
In a post on the Tucows reseller discussion list some points were made that I wanted to deal with in a general sense. This in response to these points generally. This is neither to address Robert or to discourage opinions like these from being offered. The dialogue is very healthy.
The points I wanted to highlight were as follows:
– “…as OpenSRS changes their target market…..”
– “The “service” provided by the reseller under these models is nothing more than marketing and first-level tech support: answering the phone and helping people who have lost their password, etc. That’s it. There’s no way a reseller can debug a mail service problem, for example, and no requirement that they understand how these services work.”
– “I stand by my assertion that this is more like how an affiliate program operates than how “traditional” Tucows resellers operate.”
First, Tucows has in no way shape or form changed our target market. Our target market has always been service providers who offer subscription services over the IP network. We prefer what I refer to as “first-call” service providers, in other words those that their customers most rely on for solving problems and who are they first entity the customer calls when they have a problem.
We have been clear from the beginning that we have always viewed domain names as one of a number of services we wanted to try and make more productive for our customers. This point is fairly Tucows-specific. The other points I would like to make are more about the structure of the xSP marketplace.
Customers for Internet services may be acquired on price (though usually not), but they are always kept on service. The primary Internet services today are access, email, hosting and domain registration. I think the comments above suggest a different view of the customer and what constitutes service than what I believe. In my view, service means helping the customer use a service easily and productively. The more they use the service and the more productively they use the service, the more they will need supporting services and the more they will graduate to additional services. Trust, reliability, dependability.
The statement above that I view as the most dangerous (and I mean dangerous in the sense that it is bad for your business) is
“(t)he “service” provided by the reseller under these models is nothing more than marketing and first-level tech support: answering the phone and helping people who have lost their password”.
This makes the mistake of confusing answering the phones with the totality of customer support and service. Front-line tech support is merely one of a number of elements of truly servicing the customer. Answering tech support calls is to customer service what chemotherapy is to health. It is a treatment when there is already a problem of some seriousness. There is lots of nutrition, exercise and lesser treatments that precede it.
When we at Tucows look at the dollars we spend on technology that provides support they are many times greater than the dollars we spend on people answering the phones. And they have a much higher ROI. The challenge is, especially as a retailer of Internet services, helping people better use services. Let me illustrate with some examples using email. I choose it because we can all agree that email is the most important application for Internet users. It has been around forever and every Internet user needs it.
Now let’s look at usage for a minute. How many of your customers have multiple email addresses? How many have them well managed and forwarded onto one box? Do they have effective spam filters? Are they protected from viruses in mail (both in terms of scanning and understanding what to do and what not to do)? Do they know how to use folders? Do they know how to use filters? How many use yahoo.com or hotmail.com addresses?
The answers to every one of those questions should mean dollars for service providers. Short term and long term. Every one of them leads to retention. Every one of them leads users towards more complex services.
Now let’s come at it a different way. Do you think a retail service provider’s time is better served maintaining a spam filter (and yes we will offer this as a service) on a daily basis or outsourcing that function and spending the time and effort getting the answers to the questions mentioned above? Or even better, addressing the deficiencies once they have the answers?
To me this is obvious. Retailers should focus like a laser beam on acquiring and retaining customers. On marketing and customer service. To trivialize this is, IMHO, to completely misunderstand the value-chain in Internet services. Retailers MUST understand, much better than we do, how their customers use services. We count on them to do that and to be effective filters for that information back to us so that hopefully together we can address customers needs better than any large megaprovider is able to do.
At the end of the day that is the name of the game. Our customers and us combining to provide the best Internet services experience in the industry. Together we do that in domain names and digital certificates today. I think we do it in email for those of you offering it. There will be many more of these services in the future. That is not about competing with you, but about YOU competing with THEM (and we all know who they are).
I must always note that these comments are macro. The “I run an awesome mailserver” point does not need to be made here. You guys are great at what you do. These markets are evolving daily at an amazing pace and we all need to run to keep up.
Make sure you check out the trailer here.
Perhaps I should note that this is probably only of interest to fans of Star Trek.
After reading Bret Blaser's thoughts (via Doc) on publicizing the Internet I was struck by how much easier this may be than folks may think. Before I explain what I mean I must preface with two supporting arguments. I will also note that my arguments are based upon a strong belief in end-to-end architecture
First, it is the case that, quietly, most of us live in a world of multiple service providers. I go into detail on this point at conferences, but here let me simply say that because of infrastructure and regulation the internet access market has finally tilted towards telcos and cablecos. The total numbers still don't support this, but in broadband, where the growth and future are, they dominate. However, and this is important, NONE of them are ANYWHERE in the other core internet services (email, hosting and domain registration). These are all markets that I follow very closely. They are all very competitive and, because they do not naturally contain a chokepoint (infrastructure, regulation) the telcos/cablecos are simply not big players. By the way neither is AOL or MSN. Yahoo is another story, but they are simply not as scary.
Second, competitive service providers (“CSPs” where CSP not=[telco/cableco/big media interest/enemy of a free internet]) are the natural custodians of the internet. They are massively distributed. They get the internet's strengths and weaknesses. They operate driven by enlightened self-interest. They are natural enemies of the forces that would look to privatize the internet. And they excel at customer service. While these are all generalizations, there are SO many CSPs that we can take a macro view. Unfortunately, they also suck at customer acquisition. And the ones that tend to be good at customer acquisition tend to suck at customer service (again, I know there are many exceptions to this but these are macro comments. micro exceptions to macro comments are not important. we all know a 95 yr-old smoker but this is not generalizable).
I should note there are some telcos and cablecos that are great friends of a free internet and there are some CSP-looking providers that are not. These are guidelines, not rules.
So what? Well, this leads me to the important point. What can YOU do to help save the Internet? Two things. First, ensure that YOU get YOUR internet services, other than broadband, from a CSP. You are likely to get better customer service and more responsiveness in general than you may be used to. The bad news is it WILL be harder to find them. You may need to ask around a bit. You may need to do a google-dig. You may choose based upon geography or function or any other of a number of distinctions (price being the most useless IMHO).
The second thing you can do is more important. CSPs tend to suck at customer acquisition. Their number #1 method by far is word-of-mouth. Think of them as plumbers. Plumbers generally get new business based upon trust, reliability, responsiveness and skill. They also do not tend to advertise much. Aren't those EXACTLY the qualities you want from your service provider? Ok, so they depend upon word-of-mouth. Every peer group has one, maybe two people who are the expert inside that peer group on each subject matter. My guess is that if you are reading this there is a good chance that YOU are the internet expert in one of the circles of your life (work friends, old friends, family, church group, bowling buddies, whatever) when it comes to technology or computers or the internet. If so, USE that influence. Find yourself a great CSP or two. Promote them. Do it only if they deserve it, but I promise you if you look just a bit you will easily find one that deserves it.
This is classic “power of one” stuff. If enough of us do this we will greatly strengthen the internet and make it orders of magnitude more difficult to control. The one area that can resist this for now is the network itself at an access level, but this is just 12-24 months from changing as well. That is a discussion for another day.